After 'Remarkable' Night Launch, Complex Shuttle Flight Ahead
Blazing light surroundsspace shuttle Endeavour, eclipsing the light from the nearby full moon, as it roars into space from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center during the launch of the STS-126 mission. Liftoff was on time at 7:55 p.m. EST.
Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The brilliant blaze of NASA?s space shuttle Endeavour as it rocketed into orbit under the light of a nearly full moon late Friday is just the beginning of a challenging, but vital, flight to the International Space Station (ISS) , mission managers said.

Endeavour launched toward the space station at 7:55 p.m. EST (0055 Nov 15 GMT) carrying a new station crewmember and a cargo pod filled with new life support gear to prime the orbiting laboratory to accommodate larger crews.

?Very few things that we do beat a night launch,? said LeRoy Cain, head Endeavour?s STS-126 mission management team. ?It was just remarkable right up and down the line.?

But Endeavour?s blast off is just the start of what promises to be a long, hard flight to outfit the space station and make repairs that will pave the way for larger, six-person crews to the outpost next year.

Commanded by veteran spaceflyer Chris Ferguson, Endeavour?s STS-126 crew is hauling a cargo module laden with a second kitchen, extra bathroom, new exercise gear, two refrigerator-sized sleeping cabins and a vital recycling system designed to turn astronaut urine and sweat into drinking water. The planned 15-day mission includes four spacewalks, all of them aimed at cleaning and lubricating a damaged solar array gear on the station?s starboard side.

Endeavour?s crew is also ferrying American astronaut Sandra Magnus to the space station, where she expects to replace fellow NASA spaceflyer Greg Chamitoff as a flight engineer with the outpost?s three-person Expedition 18 crew.

Chamitoff watched Endeavour blast off live via a video feed piped up from Mission Control in Houston as the station flew 220 miles (354 km) above the Southern Pacific Ocean. He cheered alongside the station?s American commander Michael Fincke and Russian flight engineer Yury Lonchakov in NASA video recorded aboard the station. The broadcast and launch came on a day that already saw another spacecraft, Russia?s unmanned cargo ship Progress 30, undock from the space station for disposal in Earth?s atmosphere.

?The ISS team is ready to go to work,? said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA?s space operations chief, after the launch. ?There?s more hours required to do the work than we have in the timeline.?

Cain said that the on-time launch of Endeavour makes it more likely mission managers may extend the mission by one day to give shuttle and station astronauts extra time to complete their mission.

?I anticipate we will be able to and we will make a decision to extend,? Cain said. But that decision, he added, will have to wait until after all four of the mission?s complicated spacewalks are complete and engineers are sure Endeavour has enough supplies to remain in orbit an extra day.

Endeavour?s launch marked the 31st nighttime liftoff in NASA?s 124-shuttle flight history and was made more spectacular by a nearly full moon, mission managers said. The sight seemed symbolic to some as the agency prepares to fly nine more shuttle missions after Endeavour?s before retiring the fleet in 2010 and replacing it with capsule-based Orion spacecraft by 2015.

?As you saw today we arranged to have the moon out there, and that?s so you can see the shuttle launching,? Gerstenmaier said. "As it went past the moon, that's the perfect analogy of transition."

About the only hitch in Endeavour?s Friday night launch came just minutes before liftoff, when an eagle-eyed flight controller found that the door-like metal framework designed to form a seal around the hatch to the shuttle?s cabin at the launch pad was not secured properly.

NASA launch director Mike Leinbach said engineers were initially worried that vibrations from the shuttle?s rocket engines could cause the framework to shake and swing, posing an impact risk to Endeavour?s side. But they ultimately found that a nearby handrail would prevent such an impact and went ahead with the launch.

The quality inspector who forgot to secure the metal frame in place was quick to take responsibility for the error, Leinbach said.

?It?s a testament to the team that when we do know that we?ve made a mistake, we own up to it and we go out and we fix that,? he added. ?And I guarantee you we will never see that issue again.?

After Endeavour's liftoff, Mission Control radioed up to the shuttle crew to report that an initial look at launch imagery caught two pieces of debris falling behind the orbiter. One bit was spotted at the 33-second mark, while the other came just over 120 seconds into the flight, but neither appeared to hit the spacecraft.

Endeavour?s STS-126 crew will scan their shuttle?s heat shield for dings on Saturday before arriving at the space station on Sunday at about 5:13 p.m. EST (2213 GMT).

NASA is providing live coverage of Endeavour?s mission on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com?s mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

This report has been updated to reflect that the Russian spacecraft Progress 30, not 31, undocked from the International Space Station on Endeavour's launch day.